Article #8 - How Emotions Help and Hurt the Golfer (Part 1)


Golf, like any sport, requires the ability to recall how to perform learned sequences of movement.  When we play this game we rely on our minds and bodies to remember what is involved in a proper golf swing.  Without having learned how to swing properly, or if one was unable to recall how to execute a proper swing, a golfer would be doomed to round after round of nothing but frustration and futility. 

It makes a great deal of sense, then, that if there was a strategy to improve one’s memory of good swings or great shots, golfers would benefit greatly by learning such a strategy.  Let me explain this strategy and give you some examples of the effect of strong emotions on memory.

One of the most powerful factors that influences our ability to remember, and to forget, is the amount of emotion that is attached to a particular event. This is true regardless of whether that event is good or bad. A clear example of this is what happened on September 11th, 2001. I’ll bet that there aren’t any individuals who are reading this column today that can’t tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first learned about the terrorist attacks in New York City.  That is a memory that will be with each of us for the rest of our lives.  It’s etched in our brains, clearly and vividly, because of the gut wrenching emotions that we all experienced when we first learned about this horrific event.  We’ll never be able to forget what happened that day.

But other memories, much more positive ones, are also clearly and vividly etched in our minds.  Those of you who are old enough will remember with great clarity watching Neil Armstrong taking mans’ first steps on the moon.  What an incredible and positive accomplishment for all of humanity! Positive events of a more personal nature are also readily remembered.  The birth of a first child is a clear memory for many of you.  To become a parent for the first time, to witness the arrival of a new, unique human being is a wonderfully moving event.  How about your first hole-in-one?  I bet that’s something you remember!  And if you haven’t had one yet, read this column regularly and you’ll increase your chances!

The point here is that the more powerful the emotion associated with an event, the more likely we are to remember the event.  These powerful memories will affect us in the present and down the road.  This is an established fact.  So, how does this apply to improving your game of golf?

One way to utilize the above principle is to create powerful, positive emotional memories when you are playing good golf.  I was out on the course one day, conducting an on-course consultation with a talented college golfer, John.  On the first par five he crushed an absolutely perfect drive down the fairway, to an ideal spot about 330 yards from the tee.  He had six iron left for his approach to the green.  When we got down to where his tee shot ended up, I turned to him and asked, “How good was that tee shot?”  He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “It was pretty good”, but there was little emotion or pride in his voice. 

I asked him to think about this shot in a different way.  “Suppose,” I said, “that you had just hit this shot at the 13th hole at Augusta National during a round in the Masters Tournament.  What would be the reaction of the crowd?  What would you hear?  How would you feel?”  He thought about it for a moment, and a broad grin spread across his face.  “I’ve got chills” he said, “right now, just thinking about what that would be like.”  I explained to John that each time he hits a particularly good shot, it would be his task to create powerful, positive emotions to help him remember the shot, and to utilize that memory to help him hit similar shots in the future. 

A professional I’ve been working with, Matt, hit a spectacular 145 yard approach shot from the rough to within 18 inches of the hole.  I asked him how good the shot was.  He shrugged and said, “Pretty good.”  I asked him to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10.  He thought for a minute, and then said with a broad smile, “I guess that would be about a 9.9. The only way it could be any better is if it went in the hole.”  I told him that I thought it was a spectacular shot, and I stressed to him, as I did with John, the importance of attaching good, strong, positive emotions to such great shots.

Most of us are brought up to behave modestly and not toot our own horns.  That may be fine in general.  However, in golf, you want to give yourself every advantage you can. Consistently supplying yourself with powerful positive feedback is a way of giving yourself a mighty advantage over your fellow competitors.  Every legitimate opportunity you have, you want to praise yourself, tell yourself that that shot was indeed spectacular, that that was as good as even the best could do.

 “That was incredible!!!”  “What a tremendous shot under the circumstances!!!”  “That was as pure a putt as can be!!!”  These are the types of messages you want to give yourself when you are performing well.  You don’t need to say anything to anybody else; you can continue to behave modestly if you wish.  However, you absolutely want to say these things to yourself.  You could say it out loud, or just say it inside your head, but either way, create strong, positive emotions, and really mean what you say.

If you provide yourself with this powerful form of reinforcement, several things will occur.  First, you’ll enjoy the game of golf much more.  You’ll also begin to develop a consistent set of memories of truly fine shots you’ve made.  And then when you play the next time, you’ll be able to recall these shots and their associated good feelings.  This clear recollection and the wonderful emotions you recall will help you to execute a similar shot when you need it.  Your brain and your body will have a perfect template of the shot, which increases the likelihood you will indeed execute the shot perfectly.

Self reinforcement may not come easily to you, but it’s important you work at it and do it on a consistent basis.  If you want to excel at this sport (or any sport) you’ll need to develop your skills in this area.  It takes commitment and effort on your part.  Just like the physical skills on which you work so hard to develop, you also need to work diligently on implementing and perfecting the mental skills that will lead you to exceptional golf.  It is a matter of personal responsibility.  You’re the only one who can make you utilize these techniques to become a better golfer.

In my next article, I’ll be addressing the OPPOSITE of strategies to help you remember.  Keep on reading this column to learn ways to stop bad events, (like missing a two foot putt that would have won a tournament), from ruining your golf game.  That’s right; I’ll be discussing strategies for FORGETTING certain aspects of the game of golf!

Kevin J. Roby, Ph.D., MGCP

Las Vegas Sport Psychology
5037 Portraits Place
Las Vegas, NV 89149